Iraqi soldiers have started celebrating their defeat of Isis in Mosul after a nine-month siege, even before the last resistance has been extinguished. An Iraqi commander called on a loudspeaker for surviving Isis fighters to surrender, but this was rejected by their commander.
“It may take another two or three days,” said an Iraqi observer, but the Iraqi government is right in saying that the greatest battle in its war against Isis is effectively over.
Iraqi troops were beginning to look more relaxed as they moved through the shattered streets in the centre of Mosul. Air strikes have turned every building into a jumble of broken beams and masonry. There was the sound of shooting just ahead and a civilian ambulance sped past. There had been heavy fighting the previous day in which snipers were very active and there were repeated air strikes by the US-led coalition.
This may have been a last desperate counter-attack by 50 to 100 Isis fighters which drove back three Iraqi government units that were advancing on the last Isis strongholds. Iraqi commanders now say that their forces are “tens of metres” away from eliminating Isis and the Joint Operations Command said “our units are still continuing to advance … Not much is left before our forces reach the river”.
Iraqi military and government spokesmen have repeatedly claimed successes prematurely in the past, but there is no doubt that they are now very close to winning. It has been an epic struggle which started 265 days ago on 17 October with no expectation that Isis would be able to resist for so long in the face of superior numbers and devastating air attacks.
Isis fighters have held out and inflicted heavy losses by adopting a fluid defensive system, snipers moving quickly from house to house through holes cut in the walls and through a network of tunnels.
Air strikes and Isis snipers have killed many civilians, particularly in the last few days. Whole streets in the centre of the city have been reduced to heaps of twisted wreckage. One man, called Abdulkareem, trapped behind Isis lines and with whom The Independent has been in touch by phone over the last week, was badly injured in an air strike. Another man, who was wounded in the leg by a coalition drone strike two months ago, was shot in the back and killed by an Isis sniper when he tried to escape across the Tigris River which runs through the centre of Mosul.
The US-led air coalition has stepped up the level of its attacks during the battle for west Mosul, which has been more badly damaged than in the east of the city. A UN study based on satellite photographs shows that 5,536 buildings in the Old City have been damaged of which 490 have been destroyed. Destruction along the main streets in the city centre is almost total with enormous bomb craters at cross roads. Isis has shot any civilians trying to leave their shrinking stronghold.
East Mosul, by way of contrast, has rapidly revived with most of the people displaced to camps during the fighting last year returning to their homes. Almost all the shops are open and there is a continuous supply of electricity. Traffic is very heavy and jams frequent because many people in badly damaged west Mosul have crossed the river to the eastern part of the city. Rents for houses and apartments have tripled.
There are very limited signs of reconstruction with a few mechanical diggers at work, mainly replacing water mains where the pipes were broken by bombs. Only municipal and health workers are being paid by the government at the moment and there is no other employment aside from shopkeeping. “There is food in the shops but no money to buy it,” said one resident.
Though the Iraqi armed forces are triumphant, Isis is by no means out of business, launching serious counter-attacks outside Mosul, including one in Qayara district south of the city on 5 July in which 160 Isis fighters seized four villages. Two suicide bombers were killed at Hamam al-Alil camp for people fleeing Mosul.
Isis will have long foreseen its loss of the city and put in place sleeper cells and detachments of fighters who can carry on the war. Even now, within districts captured by Iraqi security forces there is fear of Isis members who have shaved off their beards and changed their dress so they cannot be identified. In the forecourt of one mosque, an Isis suspect was being roughly interrogated by half a dozen Iraqi security men who were shouting questions at him.
Among the reasons why the battle for Mosul has taken so long is that effective Iraqi government combat forces are limited in number. Most of the fighting has been carried out by the Counter-Terrorism Service, the Emergency Response Division and the Federal Police which together number less than 10,000 men. They have suffered heavy losses in the fighting in Mosul from snipers, suicide bombers, booby traps and mines.
Because the number of reliable combat troops is limited, the government has difficulty occupying and holding territory it has captured. There are few solders or police to be seen in the city away from the areas where fighting is going on. In the countryside outside, often arid and rocky semi-desert to the west, one can drive for miles without seeing any Iraqi security men. Isis has suffered a great defeat in Mosul, but it will be able to survive and fight again.